While sports are a hugely positive experience in most kids’ lives, the pressure to perform, to please parents and coaches, and to live up to athletic expectations can wreak havoc on some children and teens.
“Participation in team sports can help children and adolescents develop important social skills and decrease anxiety, improve mood and foster the development of important brain functions, including attention, planning, and organization,” says Kensa K. Gunter, Psy.D., CC-AASP, a certified sports psychology consultant and chair of Sport-Exercise Psychology at Argosy University in Atlanta. “However, due to the growing intensity, pressure and competitiveness associated with youth sports, for some kids, participation can put them at an increased risk for experiencing performance anxiety, stress and burnout — and parents and coaches can play a big role in that.”
Because competitive sports means some kids win and some kids lose, competition can spell pressure. Parents who yell or get upset on the sidelines, coaches who expect stellar performance every game, and kids who thought soccer or basketball would be their favorite sport but later find they don’t like it may find themselves under the type of pressure that can turn a kid from a happy, healthy child or teen to one riddled with angst and confusion.
“I think when that happens, adults are really too involved in the whole thing and they are creating a lot of the pressure,” says Susan Kuczmarski, Ed.D, author of The Sacred Flight of the Teenager: A Parent’s Guide to Stepping Back and Letting Go, and teaches at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and Loyola University in Chicago.
“One thing I encourage in parent workshops is to do something called a values discovery, where you actually sit down as a family and every person, even little ones, can begin to talk about their values. I know this sounds like big stuff, but kids really do know what is important to them.”
A value is an internal inner conviction about what kids want to do with their time. Have kids state theirs, parents relate theirs and then plan activities accordingly. You might find, for instance, that a child is only playing soccer because her best friend also plays, a teen hates hockey or isn’t good at it and wants to try golf, or that your sports star is worrying about getting a scholarship and it’s giving him stomach aches every day.
All kids want to play their best and can be anxious or excited before competition. That’s normal. Even professional athletes get nervous before a big game, but if that anxiety becomes too great or kids stop having fun or start having problems sleeping, become irritable, get headaches or suddenly have trouble in school, it’s time to step back and reassess.
If a child is sad or too anxious about sports, it may be time to discover if parents, coaches or even teammates are applying too much pressure, or if the child himself has set too great of an expectation on his skill level or competency. Some kids want to be stars right from the start without realizing it takes a lot of work to acquire the skill set of an accomplished player.
WHAT CAN PARENTS DO TO HELP KIDS MAINTAIN A HEALTHY VIEW OF SPORTS?
Since kids want to please adults, parents should be aware that they aren’t imposing their own values on their kids. Kuczmarski says her middle brother never really wanted to play football in high school even though he was the quarterback. And yet her parents kind of quietly communicated they were pleased with him playing. He knew that was an interest of theirs. Finally, when he was a senior he decided not to play football any longer.
“There should be a lot of really selfless listening on the part of the parents,” says Kuczmarski. Pick up on what it is kids are interested in doing so you’re not making decisions for them. That’s important to keep in mind because as parents when we hear a child or teen expressing emotion like ‘I don’t want to play soccer today’ we’ll often try to deny that emotion or fix it by saying things like ‘you’re going to love it later on,’ or ‘I played it, it’s really fun and I think you’ll love it.’
Kuczmarski says parents need to be on guard for being sure they’re not denying, fixing or changing how kids feel about sports.
If a child is confused about playing a sport or hasn’t decided if she wants to continue, then you could offer something along the lines of ‘why don’t you try it and then if you don’t like it or don’t feel that’s what you what to do with your extracurricular time, you have the opportunity to decide.’
After all, this is an exploratory time. It should be about trying to figure out what kids’ interests are and what they’re good at. This way the child or teen learns to make decisions, gains independence, and figures out it’s okay to try things and discover what is right for them.
WHEN YOU HAVE A SPORTS STAR
When you have a kid who loves his sport and is excelling, look for signs that the pressure may be too much. Parents and coaches should step in if they suspect problems with grades, health, burn out or excessive stress or anxiety related to the sport.
Kuczmarski is a fan of emphasizing personal and team responsibility and humility rather than winning. “Humility is defined as caring more about the relationships than the power base, and to me the power base is a euphemism for winning or controlling or competing.” Parents and coaches alike should place the emphasis on building relationships, accepting the diversity of a team, helping teammates and learning leadership, rather than on the stress of competition and a win-at-all cost mentality.
TIPS FOR TAKING DOWN THE PRESSURE
- Take a hammock. There’s tremendous value for children in what Kuczmarski calls “hammock time.” This means doing nothing. Encourage kids to daydream, hang out, get lost in thoughts, and doodle. It shifts gears to neutral. Too much focus on games leaves very little time to dream, wonder, reflect, and discover.
- Get in nature. There’s something about the woods, the beach, sitting in tall grass, sticking your toes in the lake or building a snowman that relieves tension and lets kids be kids.
- Volunteer for a charity cause or help at a soup kitchen. The capacity to give helps kids see larger issues than the football field.
- Laugh. Telling jokes and doing funny things should be encouraged. Kids and parents need the emotional release it provides to not only feel better but to beat the pressure.